Friday, December 6, 2013

R U Ready for Christmas? (Part 2)

Christ's redemptive act is beautifully summarized in St. John’s Gospel (3:16, 17):  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Why would God do this?  Because he loves us all dearly!   We’re his children.  He could no more abandon us than a good mother could abandon her children. 

This in a nutshell is the Good News (or Gospel) of our salvation: God offers this free gift of redemption and salvation from original and actual sin to anyone who will believe in Him or have faith, is baptized in His name: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or the Holy Trinity), and then perseveres in a life of love for God and their neighbor by striving to live honestly, decently, ethically, and morally good in accordance with God’s teachings.

Since the early years of the Christian Church they have faithfully recited the Apostles Creed (or variation of it) during their worship services.  And it succinctly describes what Christians believe in:  I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.

When people asked Jesus how a person should live a truly good life he answered (Matthew 22:37-40): Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

This is the law of love that Jesus commanded for his followers, which is beautifully described in detail in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7.  In His Sermon on the Mount, he made the practical connection between the written Jewish law and loving God and others. 

He taught that it’s not enough to have faith in God to save us we must also persevere in love for God and others.  For example, He taught that it wasn’t enough to love our friends and relatives or those who love us; we must also love our enemies or those who treat us poorly. 

The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8,13) explained this law of love further by describing the virtues of faith, hope, and love that practicing Christians should strive for: Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

Persevering in a life of love for God and others is what practicing Christians strive for their whole lives.  Salvation is a process of being liberated or freed from evil or from the undesirable through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  We can’t simply say, “I believe in God!”, and all our troubles and bad habits will magically disappear.  It doesn’t work that way.  Ask anyone who’s addicted to alcohol, drugs, or anything else?  God certainly didn’t need our help to create us, but He certainly won’t save us without our help.  It takes time and effort and perseverance.  The old adage God helps those who help themselves is quite true.  There’s also an old adage that says For every step you take towards God, God takes two steps towards you.    

And remember, that God has given all of us the capacity to choose good rather than evil; although, our freedom to choose good is wounded by this curse of original sin.  We overcome sin and bad behavior in our lives through our daily, continued faith and trust in God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and through our continued obedience to His will and moral edicts. 

When we fail to live up to God’s high standards, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and continue on our Christian struggle.  And, if we’ve wronged anyone, we need to reconcile with him or her by asking forgiveness and making amends.  But what we don’t do is give up and become despondent because it’s too difficult!  It is more challenging and difficult to live a life of love than it is to live a life of hate.  It’s harder to be good than it is to be bad.  If you don’t want to be good, then all you have to do is nothing! 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

R U Ready for Christmas? (Part 1)

This is the Advent Season in the Church's Liturgical Year.  It's observed over the four weeks before Christmas, and it's a time to get ready for Christmas, a time to take personal inventory of our lives, and a time to clean house.  Christmas, of course, is the time we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  But what does all this really mean?  Over the course of the next four weeks I'll be posting a series of articles to answer these questions.

How do we become better people?  How do we become more kind to others?  How do we live more honestly, decently, ethically, and morally?  How do we change ourselves for the better?  These are the sixty-four thousand dollar questions mankind has been asking for generations?  And there are no simple answers.  If it were so easy to become better people, we would be living in a utopia by now.  There wouldn't be war, terrorism, murders, rapes, robbery, injustice, poverty, starvation, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera....

So rather than first asking how do we become better people, let’s first ask how did we get into this mess in the first place?  How did our world become so unfair, unkind, and unjust? 

Christians believe that God is the Supreme Being who created everything in the universe, and according to His divine will and providence, keeps them in existence.  God is infinitely perfect and the source of all life, knowledge and truth.  God is all-holy, almighty, all-eternal, all-good, all-knowing, all-present, all-wise, all-loving, all-just, and all-merciful (just to name a few). 

Surprisingly, Christians believe that just by natural reason we can come to know God.  All you have to do is consider the universe we live in….  All the created realities from the stars in the night sky, our sun and moon, the earth we live on, the wonder of nature, all the creatures that inhabit or world (from the smallest to the greatest), or our own human bodies give evidence of God’s existence.  Consider the phenomena found in nature and the physical, mathematical, life, and social sciences that study them and try to explain them with varying degrees of success.  Yes, mankind has learned much over the ages, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean compared with what we still don’t know.  But actually there’s a much simpler way to know God: just look deep within yourself—into the recesses of your mind and heart—and you’ll know there IS a God! 

In the beginning, men and women perfectly reflected God’s own perfect holiness, goodness, wisdom, knowledge, power, and love.  They were free from suffering and death and were given the freedom to choose or free-will.  By obeying God, they could remain in this wonderful state of perfection; but by disobeying God, they’d lose the wonderful gifts He gave them. 

Our God-given ability to freely choose or free-will means that God will not force us to love him or to obey him, nor will God force us to act honestly, decently, ethically, and morally in our dealings with other people; but ultimately, God will hold us all accountable for the way we lived our lives and how we treated other people.

Unfortunately, men and women fell from this original state of perfection through pride, selfishness, and disobedience to God.  They lost these wonderful gifts God gave them, and this is what brought suffering and death into the world. 

Since the fall of man and woman, all generations that followed have failed to live up to God’s moral and ethical laws; this is what Christians call original sin and it disrupted man’s intimate, loving relationship with God our creator.

As a result of this original sin every man and woman was born into a fallen state of separation and alienation from God and became subject to suffering, death, ignorance, and a strong inclination to sin and to disobey God.  Men and women lost God’s wonderful gifts of holiness, justice, grace, great knowledge, control of their passions, and freedom from suffering and death. 

History has clearly shown that we cannot save ourselves or reverse the effects of this curse of original sin—only God can!  Every generation that has come and gone has tried and failed miserably.  Some would argue that the world is slowly getting better and we’re more advanced than previous generations.  Our technology and scientific understanding have grown.  They could argue that we’re no longer stuck in the dark ages and there’s relative peace in most of the developed world.  But before long, someone or something will change all that: murder, mayhem, misunderstandings, conflict, war, famine, natural disasters, sickness, disease, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera….  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  And deep down inside each of us we know that the world is basically unfair, unkind, and unjust?    

Fortunately, God didn’t give up on us!  He immediately began to save the human race from our fallen condition.  The history recounted throughout the Bible recounts the unfolding of God’s plan to save the human race from this curse of original sin.

God made covenants (or solemn, unbreakable agreements) with our forefathers beginning with Noah and continuing with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses.  He sent prophets (or seers) to tell us the right way to live and warn humanity of the consequence of bad behavior.

God spoke to us in various ways throughout the ages reminding us of his love for us and his desire for us to return to him through righteous living.  And eventually, God spoke to us directly through His own Son Jesus Christ.  God’s redemptive plan to free mankind from this curse of original sin and restore our original destiny to share God’s blessed life was fulfilled through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  We couldn’t save ourselves, so God sent His Son into the world to do it for us.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A flood, a truck, a boat, and a helicopter...

Jesus said to his disciples: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.  In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark.  They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.  So will it be also at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24: 37ff)
The rains came, the dam was overflowing, a flood was coming, and a man stood on his front porch watching the waters rise in the street when a National Guard Army truck drove up and the soldier called out to the man, "The dam is overflowing and a flood is coming!  The Governor has declared a state of emergency and we're evacuating everybody.  Get on the truck and we'll bring you to safety."
"I'm not leaving my home," said the man, "I believe God'll save me!"
A few hours later the water was up to the porch and coming in the front door when a rescue boat came by.  The people in the boat called out to the man, "The dam is overflowing!  This place will all be under water in an hour or two.  Get in the boat and we'll bring you to safety."
"I'm not leaving my home," said the man, "I believe God'll save me!"
A couple of hours later the flood waters were over the second story and the man was clinging to the roof of his house when a Coast Guard helicopter came by.  The pilot called through the loudspeaker, "WE'LL DROP A LADDER AND PULL YOU UP TO SAFETY!"  The man shook his head and waved the helicopter off refusing to go.  He thought to himself, God'll save me.
A couple of hours later the dam broke, the deluge came and flooded everything and the man drowned....  Standing in front of God, the man asked the Lord, "Why didn't you save me?" 
God replied, "I sent you an army truck, a rowboat, and a helicopter!  What else did you expect me to do?"
My friend Allen often shares this funny story (  The point is that God serendipitously sends us all help to save us from the problems and challenges we all face in our lives.  We just have to be on the look out for the help he sends.  God doesn't need our help to save us, but He most certainly won't save us without our cooperation.

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